Where No Human Was Meant To Go
How often is it – in surfing or anything – you can truly say you’ve seen something you’ve never seen before and don’t expect to see again?
Early this morning – or late last night, depending on how you look at 2am – the reef begins to boom.
Almost imperceptible, ground-shaking impacts.
At the crack we get up, have coffee and walk down to check it.
Immediately you can see it’s BIG. Seawater has broken the berm protecting the lawns along the rim of the bay inside the pass; rocks and weed and bits of junk are scattered in unusual places.
Kerrzy is on the roof of his house with a crew, sees Davo, and starts trying to prank him. “8.30 start!” he yells. “I’m serious!” He can’t carry it off for even a second. We go up on to the roof to watch. The lagoon is draining off water like spilt beer off a kitchen table. A darkness is in the water, of old silts being stirred from somewhere deep.
I see a ski streaking across the lineup, surfer staying on the rope, and a ten-foot wave sliding under them both, the lip-line falling and the wave spitting hard into the channel.
Then behind it. Holy Shit. Twenty-foot-square slabs, one after another, hitting the reef and almost doubling in size. The whitewater explosion on the reef is almost twice the height of the lagoon tower. If human beings are on those waves, none of them make it to the channel.
You can hear people squealing down at the point several hundred metres away. The rush of water from the set has encircled the medical hut and is pulling the tip of the point apart. “Look at it!” says Kaimana Alexander, peering. “That thing’s gonna be gone today.”
Skis now come in over the reef, searching the lagoon for someone or something. The object of the search is Victor, a Brazilian surfer who has dislocated his left knee, blowing out all the ligaments. It turns out he’d let go on the small front-runner wave and been caught inside on the reef. The docs aren’t supposed to get involved, but Mary, a paramedic with the event, runs over to check on him, and Woody from security alerts the ambulance at the marina three kilometres away. Victor is carted off behind his buddy’s ski.
Now a ski seems to be adrift well out in the lagoon, just inside the reef line. Two other skis come over and to it, gathering like animals around a fallen fellow. They’re doing something, but what?
The skis come slowly into the point and off the back of one slides Raimana van Bastolaer, and he falls backward into the water and lies there looking up at the sky.
“Everyone ate shit,” says Strider Wasilewski, who is on one of the skis. “Everyone.”
Raimana struggles to his feet and very slowly makes his way up on to more or less dry land, where Luke Egan carefully helps him peel off his wetsuit. He has a deep grazed bruise all the way down his right side, from shoulder to knee. “I was in it,” he says, meaning the wave, “and then it just swung around and threw me. I hit HARD, man.”
“You were saved by your wetsuit,” says Luke.
“And my PFD,” says Raimana. The reef has torn him up through a life vest and a wettie.
Strider describes trying to drive his ski inside the foam line on the way to crossing the reef. “It just fell through a hole in the (water) surface,” he says. “I was driving the ski completely underwater.” He is shaking his head very slightly.
Makua Rothman comes in and around on a ski, his whole body posture alert and sharp. Keala Kennelly is up on the drowned lawn fringe with a knee brace and a tow-board. Everything about the scene clicks somewhere in the back of my mind, though I know I haven’t quite seen its like. It feels almost fictional – as if there are people gathered here today not to surf, but to slay dragons.
We wait for the tide to fill a bit, then leap with boards into the channel inside the lagoon and head out to have a look. Swiftly the overflow sucks us out wide into the bay and we have to work through a lot of sucky water to break clear and finally be paddling well wide of the reef up to the wave itself.
By this time a dozen boats and several jetskis are trimming back and forth in the slot of deep water off to the side of the bowl, and a pack of surfers – Joel Parkinson, Pat Gudauskas, Ace Buchan, Julian Wilson, Rasta, Anthony Walsh, Owen Wright, Kerrzy – are spectating and playing chicken with the slot.
They tell us about the carnage: Maya Gabeira going a smaller one, then being trapped inside on the reef between the end of the left and the nasty right on the other side of the slot for six set waves, unable to go out or back into the lagoon. Poto taking his own ski in and snatching her. Maya unable to speak and bleeding from an ear.
Dingo Morrison coming out of a good one a bit high on the face, his board flipping beneath him with a foot still caught in a strap, maybe breaking an ankle.
“Danilo Costa went over backwards,” says Kerrzy. “He was just in there,” he says, pointing toward the reef. “But wasn’t paying attention when a wave came. He went over and we never saw him again.”
We’re laughing and shaking our heads, when the water begins to drain seaward, and a wave with a face flat and black as basalt stands up across Teahupo’o reef. A ski is there, then it isn’t, then a surfer is, running extremely fast in mid-face and angling down slightly. The black face is six or seven times his height and bending. For three or four seconds it looks as if the surfer will negotiate the bend. As he is doing this, people in the boats are screaming for their drivers to get clear, and people on their boards are scratching to make some ground. Then the wave hooks back into the reef at the last moment, 15 feet of lip pitch over and sideways, and the surfer’s board buries itself nose-first in the resulting curve.
It’s Bruce Irons.
Everyone is still screaming. We look down from the top of the next wave into the foamy madness inside and see him pop up, and give a thumbs up.
I instantly know why this scene has never quite connected with me before despite the years of incredible footage and photos of massive Chopes – because the intensity of it, the wildness, the distilled purity of the surfing experience, is impossible to convey. I can’t explain it, I know I can’t but I’ve got to try. And I didn’t even ride it.
Several minutes pass and then a wave of unearthly dimensions, huge. The wave creates a space within itself that no human was ever meant to occupy. The surfer is Nathan Fletcher and he goes into that space anyway. The wave descends upon him and explodes with a force so terrible that it causes the water in the channel to shake.
Unbelievably Nathan is snatched clear by his driver and is OK. It’s only water, or is it.
“You’ve been surfing for 40 years,” says Parko, “ever seen that?” Not even close.
The wave is so big it causes everyone in the channel to forget everything for a little while. A kind of collective memory blackout.
Irons’s next wave is like a smack in the face. It’s almost as big as Nathan’s and it blasts him equally fiercely. Maybe more so. His driver, Koby Abberton, races in after him, a look of concern on his face, but then when he gets to Bruce, he starts laughing, and it’s soon obvious why.
“It took my shorts,” half yells Bruce. “Naked!” Koby is cracking up. He drives Bruce through all the boats, Bruce smacking his own bald arse, as if to say: “I don’t care! Have a look if ya want!”
Something about Bruce’s pantlessness suddenly humanises this outrageous circumstance. No longer is it completely surreal. The surfers in the channel begin to relax. Davo wonders if maybe he should try to grab a rope and have a go, but the moment passes.
Heaps of other guys get bombs and do wonders: Dylan Longbottom, Alex Gray, Walshy, Laurie Towner, Hippo, Freddy P, Sean Lopez, Keala, Dean Bowen, numerous others of the pack of big wave chargers who’ve been drawn here from across the world for this day’s swell. Later, way later that arvo, I get back in and see they’re webcasting the whole thing, and watch it for a while on screen to see if I could get even a little bit close to what had happened out there earlier. You couldn’t. But I hadn’t really expected to.
Instead I kept thinking of the place in the wave where none of them were supposed to go, and how they’d gone there anyway, the way Nate and Bruce had. Was there some price to pay for it, other than water up the nose and a reef cut or six? When we’re all watching this, do we really know what we’re seeing? Or is it just a show for the crowd?
I might never see it again, but I’m glad this time I did.
The organisers of the Billabong Pro will make a call at 6.30am Tahiti time (2.30am Australian) on whether to compete tomorrow, or if the tow-in freesurfers will get another chance to shine. Tune into billabongpro.com and Fuel TV when Round 3 continues.
To see videos and more stories about the Billabong Pro Tahiti, go to our Air Asia World Tour page here.
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BILLABONG PRO TAHITI REMAINING ROUND 3 MATCH-UPS:
Heat 4: Michel Bourez (PYF) vs. Dusty Payne (HAW)
Heat 5: Matt Wilkinson (AUS) vs. Jadson Andre (BRA)
Heat 6: Kelly Slater (USA) vs. Ricardo dos Santos (BRA)
Heat 7: Jordy Smith (ZAF) vs. Travis Logie (ZAF)
Heat 8: Chris Davidson (AUS) vs. Tiago Pires (PRT)
Heat 9: Damien Hobgood (USA) vs. Brett Simpson (USA)
Heat 10: Owen Wright (AUS) vs. Taylor Knox (USA)
Heat 11: C.J. Hobgood (USA) vs. Raoni Monteiro (BRA)
Heat 12: Mick Fanning (AUS) vs. Fredrick Patacchia (HAW)
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